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placed Beethoven, so sensitive to personalities, so peculiarly in need
of tranquillity for the pursuit of his ideas, in the midst of such a
pack of rascally kindred. The great canker of his life was his nephew,
Carl, left his ward, in 1815, by the death of his brother. A loafer in
billiard-rooms, a devotee of cheap amours, a dissipated, frivolous, and
wholly irreverent weakling, this young man looked upon his uncle simply
as a source of florins, having apparently no respect for his age, his
sufferings, or his genius. To make matters worse, Beethoven found it
necessary, in order to secure the boy’s custody, to go to law against
his mother, whom he picturesquely and significantly named “The Queen
of the Night.” He was involved in endless lawsuits to gain the very
responsibilities which proved so heavy and so fruitless. Carl rewarded
all this care and love by holding clandestine meetings with his
mother, by squandering his uncle’s hard-earned money, by neglecting the
commissions which the composer, deaf and ill, was obliged to entrust to
him; and finally, brought to the verge of despair by his own weakness,
he attempted suicide, was locked up in an asylum, and was eventually
packed off to the army. In all Beethoven’s struggles with his nephew
he got no help from the boy’s other uncle, the “land-owner” of the
anecdote, Johann van Beethoven, whom the composer bitterly called his
“pseudo-brother.” This complacent apothecary saw no need of helping a
brother who was one of the greatest artists living, and whose life was
being slowly sapped by sordid anxieties. Doubtless Beethoven was a man
difficult to help - a man of high temper, perverse whims, uncompromising
speech. But the story, nevertheless, is an unpleasant one, in which
young Carl and old Johann Beethoven play unenviable rôles.

In his contact with these wretched relatives Beethoven was not
supported by a comfortable, congenial home. A bachelor, poor,
absent-minded, and engrossed in abstract pursuits, he was at the mercy
of rapacious landlords and self-seeking or incompetent servants. After
1816, when, largely for his nephew’s sake, he began keeping house,
he was given hardly a moment of ease by what he called his “domestic
rabble.” His letters are full of indignant protests or half-humorous
jibes against the old “witch,” or “Satanas,” as he called his
housekeeper - a half-crazy beldame who not only neglected his table and
let the dust thicken on his books, but on one occasion actually used
the manuscript of a part of his great Mass to wrap around old boots.
“My dear Son,” he writes (it was thus that he habitually addressed his
nephew), “It is impossible to permit this to continue any longer; no
soup to-day, no beef, no eggs, and at last _broiled meat_ from the inn!
Little as I require what nourishes the body, as you know, still the
present state of things is really too bad, besides being every moment
in danger of being poisoned.” Another time he exclaims: “Here comes
_Satanas_.... What a reproach to our civilization to stand in need of
a class like this, and to have those whom we despise constantly near
us.” How must Beethoven have felt when the nephew whom he had trusted
as a son descended so low as to borrow money surreptitiously from, this
very “Satanas”? “Last Sunday,” he writes, “you again borrowed 1 florin
15 kreutzers from the housekeeper, from a mean old kitchen wench, - this
was already forbidden, - and it is the same in all things. What avail
even the most gentle reproofs? They merely serve to embitter you. But
do not be uneasy; I shall continue to care for you as much as ever.”

Another constant harassment of Beethoven in his later years was
poverty. The annuity settled upon him by his patrons was so seriously
decreased by a depreciation in the value of paper money and by the
deaths of some of the donors that it eventually amounted to only
four hundred dollars a year. “If my salary,” he wrote in 1822, “were
not so far reduced as to be no salary at all, I would write nothing
but symphonies for a full orchestra, and church music, or at most
quartets.” As it was, he had to devote a part of his time to writing
for money, a servitude intensely distasteful to one so devoted to
high artistic ideals, so constitutionally incapable of compromise. He
puts the best face on the matter, jokes about it as he does about
everything; but it is obvious that he suffered much to gather the
florins his nephew so easily spent. “I wander about here with music
paper, among the hills and dales and valleys, and scribble a great
deal to get my daily bread; for I have brought things to such a pass
... that in order to gain time for a great composition, I must always
previously scrawl away a good deal for the sake of money.” But his
attitude towards publishers remained dignified, considerate; he knew
how to respect his own work and rights without falling into the petty
egotism of the so-called “artistic temperament.” “I must apprise you,”
he writes Herr Peters of the well-known Leipzig publishing house, “that
I cannot accept less than 50 ducats for a string quartet, and 70 for
a pianoforte one, without incurring loss; indeed, I have repeatedly
been offered more than 50 ducats for a violin quartet. I am, however,
always unwilling to ask more than necessary, so I adhere to the sum
of 50 ducats, which is, in fact, nowadays the usual price. I feel
positively ashamed when I have to ask a price for a really great work.
Still, such is my position that it obliges me to secure every possible
advantage. It is very different, however, with the work itself; when
I never, thank God, think of profit, but solely of how I write it.”
It is a similar dignified sense of his responsibilities, far removed
from vanity, that prompts him to request of an editor notice of his
nomination as an honorary member of the Royal Swedish Musical Academy.
“Although neither vain nor ambitious,” he says, “still I consider it
advisable not wholly to pass over such an occurrence, as in practical
life we must live and work for others, who may often eventually benefit
by it.” The sincerity of these convictions is proved by the fact that
after Beethoven’s death in poverty, eight bank-shares were found among
his papers, carefully preserved by him for the legacy of his nephew.

Beethoven’s deafness went on steadily increasing. That is a pathetic
picture his friend Schindler gives of him, improvising with all the
enthusiasm of his inner inspiration on the violin or the viola, which,
because of his inability to tune them, gave out the most distressing,
discordant sounds. On the piano it was but little better; he had to
guide himself largely by sight, and his touch became harsh and heavy.
The effect of this malady on his character, already mentioned in
Chapter VII, and recognized by himself in his “Will,”[47] grew as
time went on more profound. He became morbidly suspicious, withdrew
himself entirely from casual social intercourse, and distrusted even
his best friends. Friendly consultations in his behalf he interpreted
as collusions against him, and resented with all the violent anger of
his intense, willful, and frank nature. When Lichnowsky, Schuppanzigh,
and Schindler met at his room, as if by chance, to discuss a concert
they were planning for the presentation of the Missa Solemnis and the
Ninth Symphony, his suspicions were so aroused that he wrote the three
faithful disciples as follows:

To Lichnowsky:

“Insincerity I despise; visit me no more; my concert is not to take
place.

“Beethoven.”

To Schuppanzigh:

“Come no more to see me. I give no concert.

“Beethoven.”

To Schindler:

“Do not come to me till I summon you. No concert.

“Beethoven.”

The dogmatic, domineering habit of mind here illustrated, the obverse
side of Beethoven’s strong will and high self-reliance, doubtless did
much to intensify the loneliness and the difficulties of his old age.
Yet even here there is something noble, something that commands as much
admiration as pity, about this wounded hero, this lion at bay.

The last scene of Beethoven’s troublous life opens in October, 1826,
when, already aged and broken, though but fifty-six years old, he
was obliged to seek, in the house of his “pseudo-brother” Johann, at
Krems, fifty miles from Vienna, a refuge for Carl, who had been ordered
out of Vienna by the civil authorities after his attempt at suicide.
Sir George Grove gives a picture of the oddly-assorted group of
actors: “The pompous money-loving land-proprietor; his wife, a common
frivolous woman of questionable character; the ne’er-do-well nephew,
intensely selfish and ready to make game of his uncle or to make love
to his aunt; and in the midst of them all the great composer - deaf,
untidy, unpresentable, setting every household rule at defiance, by
turns entirely absorbed and pertinaciously boisterous, exploding in
rough jokes and hoarse laughter, or bursting into sudden fury at some
absolute misconception.” Beethoven, whose health was already seriously
undermined, was obliged to sit in a cold room at his work, his brother
being unwilling to go to the expense of a fire, and to eat unwholesome,
ill-cooked food, for which however board-money was rigorously exacted.
By early December there was an open rupture between the two brothers,
and the composer and Carl, resolved to leave the place, yet denied
the closed carriage of the niggardly Johann, risked the fifty-mile
journey, in winter weather, in a hired open wagon. It was Beethoven’s
death blow. Reaching home after two days’ exposure, he took to his
bed, with his digestive troubles much aggravated, and an inflammation
of the lungs. A little later dropsy set in, and four operations had to
be undergone. As the doctors drew out the water Beethoven said grimly:
“Better from my belly than from my pen.” Early in the new year he
rallied, and planned fresh compositions. He amused himself with the
romances of Scott, but at last threw them down, exclaiming angrily:
“The man writes for money.” Soon he began to fail again. On March 24th,
rapidly sinking, he just found strength to whisper to the friends at
his bedside: “Plaudite, amici, commèdia finita est.” After a desperate
struggle of two days, his vigorous constitution at last succumbed, and
he died on the evening of March 26th, 1827.

Of the compositions of Beethoven’s last period the most conflicting
opinions have been held. Musicians of the Wagner and Liszt school have
seen in the Ninth Symphony the opening of a door into a new realm of
art, greater, freer, more deeply expressive than any that had gone
before. Critics less in sympathy with the tendencies of romanticism,
however, have interpreted the last phase of Beethoven’s career as
a decadence, the necessary result of flagging vitality and of his
previous exhaustion of the legitimate effects of pure music. They
have pointed out that his deafness made him indifferent to the actual
sensuous effect of his combinations of tone; that his increasing
fondness for the subtleties of polyphony was not supported by adequate
early training; and that the isolation and sufferings of his life
gradually undermined the sanity and marred the balance of his art.
Probably there is some truth in each of these views.

It is certain that Beethoven, in his last quartets and pianoforte
sonatas, and in the Ninth Symphony, showed for the first time the
feasibility of those special, highly individualized expressions of
feeling in music which were afterwards wrought out in great variety
and profusion by Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, and
the other composers of the Romantic school. He not only made music,
as we have already seen, a language as well as an art, but he set
the fashion, in his last compositions, of regarding its powers of
eloquent and definite utterance as of even greater importance than its
general plastic beauty. From the point of view of interest, this was
an advance; and judged from this standpoint Beethoven was a pioneer
in that movement towards characteristic expression which has been so
important a part of the musical activity of our time.

But every advance, in art as well as in life, is made at a certain
cost, and the price of this increase in complexity and preciseness of
expression was a loss of artistic wholeness and poise. As a monument
of pure beauty embodied in tones, the Ninth Symphony hardly holds its
own beside the Eighth, so much smaller and less ambitious. One misses
in it the sense of reserve power, of restraint, of firmly controlled
balance of means and ends. The passionate spirit of the work jars and
disrupts its body. Music is strained to its limit of power; and great
as is the result, the success seems too much like a feat of genius,
done in despite of natural laws. In all Beethoven’s later works there
is this uncomfortable sense of strain and labor. He achieves the
well-nigh impossible, but it is at the cost of serenity.

In view of the circumstances, we may think it could hardly have been
otherwise. Long-continued deafness had made Beethoven insensitive to
the sensuous basis of music. He considered less and less the actual
sound of his fabric of tones, more and more their purely intellectual
and ideal relations. The pages of the final sonatas and quartets
bristle with passages as distressing to hear as they are interesting
to contemplate. This tendency to harshness was reinforced by his
growing addiction to contrapuntal writing. His natural style was that
monophonic or harmonic style initiated by the Florentine reformers and
passed on to him through Haydn and Mozart. But as he meditated, ever
more profoundly, he came to see its inadequacy, and constantly felt out
more and more in the direction of polyphony; he endeavored to graft
the fugue and the canon upon sonata-form. His early training, however,
was insufficient for such a task; his limitations in counterpoint had
been correctly gauged by his teacher, Albrechtsberger; and when in
his maturity he attempted to write polyphonically, he became crabbed,
awkward, and discordant. His instinct was right, but his skill did not
support him. In choral writing, again, to which he devoted himself
with increasing enthusiasm as he grew older, he was at a disadvantage.
He disregarded the natural conditions of the voice; he never really
mastered vocal style; and when he introduced a chorus into his last and
most gigantic symphony, he attempted more than he could satisfactorily
execute. The choral part of that symphony is exceedingly difficult; and
the audience is made almost as uneasy by it as the chorus.

The isolation in which he finally came to live, and the natural
independence of his character, added their influence to those of
physical and technical limitations. As he cared less for general
intelligibility, and more for the logical carrying out, to their
extremes, of the implications of his ideas, his music became more and
more abstruse. His constantly increasing interest in intellectual
subtleties, on which his great and lonely mind naturally concentrated
itself, was not regulated by a sufficient perception of the sensuous
qualities of his work - for he was deaf; and consequently the balance
was destroyed, the great sanative touch of the actual was lost, and his
music became distorted and grotesque. Some of the fugues in his later
quartets and piano sonatas sound more like audible problems in chess or
mathematics than like “the concord of sweet sounds.”

Suffering so extreme as Beethoven’s had its inevitable effect, too,
on the whole general tone and quality of his artistic utterance. He
learned the lessons of sorrow as few men have ever learned them;
temporal misfortune taught him to impersonalize his ideals, to turn to
the eternal sources of hope in his inmost spirit, and to interpret the
joys and sorrows not of his separate self merely, but of all humanity;
but at the same time that his spirit was thus chastened, purified, and
expanded, it was shorn of its primitive vigor, its pristine elasticity,
energy, and animation. If the music of his prime is the music of pagan
idealism, that of his later years is the music of stoicism - the stern
and noble stoicism of Marcus Aurelius, touched with the tenderness and
spiritual joy of Christ. It breathes a high serenity, a transfigured
human happiness, attainable only to a great soul after much suffering.
If any mortal artist could be justified in such a boast, Beethoven
was justified when he wrote: “I do not fear for my works. No evil can
befall them; and whosoever shall understand them, he shall be freed
from all the misery that burdens mankind.”

* * * * *

As we take a last backward glance over the life of Beethoven, and over
that larger life of the art of music in the classical period, of which
it was the final stage, we cannot but be profoundly impressed by the
unity and continuity of the whole evolution. From its first slight and
tentative beginnings in the experiments of the Florentine reformers,
secular music, the art of expressing through the medium of tones, the
full, free, and harmonious emotional life of modern idealism gradually
acquired, through the labors of the seventeenth-century composers,
definiteness of aim and technical resources. Then, in the work of Haydn
and Mozart, it reached the stage of maturity, of self-consciousness;
it became flexible, various, many-sided, adequate to the demands made
upon it; it emerged from childhood, and took its honored place in the
circle of independent and recognized arts. Finally, it was brought by
Beethoven to its ripe perfection, its full flowering. It was made to
say all that, within its native limitations, it was capable of saying.
It reached the fullness of life beyond which it could live only by
breaking itself up into new types, as the old plant scatters forth
seeds. And even these new types were dimly divined, and suggested to
his successors, by Beethoven. Was it not his effort to express, in
absolute music, the most various shades of personal, highly specialized
feeling, vigorous, sentimental, mystical, or elfishly wayward, that
inspired the romantic composers, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, and their
fellows, to pursue even further the same quest? Was it not his feeling
out toward novel dramatic effects in the combined chorus and orchestra,
in the Ninth Symphony, that showed Wagner the path he must take? Was it
not his attempts, defeated by insufficient technical skill, to combine
the polyphony of the sixteenth century with the harmonic and rhythmic
structure of the nineteenth, that suggested to Brahms, more fully
equipped, his great enterprise? Thus even the failures of a great man
are full of promise; and Beethoven, and all his forerunners too, still
live and speak to us in the music of to-day.


FOOTNOTE:
[47] See page 276.

* * * * *


TRANSCRIBER’S NOTES:

Italic text is denoted by _underscores_.

The book cover was created by the Transcriber and has been put in the
public domain.

A number of words in this book have both hyphenated and non-hyphenated
variants. For the words with both variants present the one more used
has been kept.

Obvious punctuation and other printing errors have been corrected.







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Online LibraryDaniel Gregory MasonBeethoven and his forerunners → online text (page 15 of 15)